Sunday, February 17, 2008

We are All Together

Sermon preached by R’ Moshe Sokol, Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, Parshat Tetzaveh, 5768

Summary, and mistakes, mine.

The parsha opens with a pair of puzzling pesukim:

20 "Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning… 21 …in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain that is in front of the Testimony, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the LORD from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.

These raise several questions:

1) the verbs have suddenly changed from the previous section about building the Mishkan

2) the timing seems strange, between building the mishkan and the priestly garb – why are the priests being told what to do before being given proper clothing and consecration? Shouldn’t this have been somewhere in parshat Emor, where the priests are given duties?

3) What is the Ner Tamid (eternal light)?

4) Who are the actors and why?

It’s a puzzling passage. All the commentators deal with some subset of the above questions, and all their answers seem strained. R’ Sokol will offer a pshat (simple reading) that will attempt to answer the questions.

What is the clear oil of pressed olives? Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), from pressed, not crushed olives, is made with special care. This is to be made by the Children of Israel, regular Jews, “lamaor”, specifically with the intent that it be used for the Temple lights. The priests are then to take this offering, and use it to light the Eternal Light.

What is the Eternal Light? That’s a machloket rishonim, an argument among medieval sages. Rabbenu Bachya maintains that it’s a collective noun for all the lamps in the Mishkan, and later the Temple. Ramban, on the other hand, sees it as the Ner Hamaaravi, the Western Lamp, or central lamp on the Menorah. Just as the Jews pull in many different directions, but are unified through the Torah and its observance in and out of the Temple, the Ner Hamaaravi unites the divergent branches on the Menorah, and is always lit, even if the rest of the Menorah is only lit on certain occasions.

What is the command, and to whom? You, Moshe, should command the Children of Israel, to prepare pure, refined oil, in purity and sanctity, and give it to the priests, who can then use it in the Eternal Light in the Temple. The usual reading of this passage would have the Israelites representing gashmiyus, physicality, and the priests representing ruchniyus, spirituality, and the spiritual priests elevate the product of the rude Israelites. R’ Sokol would undermine that reading, seeing it as more of an intertwined set of responsibilities. The Israelites prepare the oil in holiness and purity, normally the priestly mode. The priests then take the oil made by ordinary Jews, and use it for the holy purpose. The regular people and the priests join in sanctity.

Judaism doesn’t recognize a caste system, rather, a separation of roles. The people have their role, the priests have their role, and the two working together accomplish God’s purpose. There is no such separation between the spiritual and the physical, the two work hand in hand.

Thus the passage fits here, as a prologue to the priestly clothes. It reminds the priests, that despite their special clothing, their special roles, they are not actually above the rest of the people. Rather, they are part of an organic whole, integrated as part of Bnei Yisrael

No comments: